The Gift of Belonging

125Have you ever been in a situation where you just didn’t belong? 

Maybe everyone was looking at you, silently assessing and judging you.   Perhaps you wore the “wrong” clothes, had the wrong accent, lacked the right credentials or education, didn’t know the right people, had a different faith, a different race, a different history, a different story…whatever the reason, you simply weren’t accepted.   You didn’t belong.

Take a moment and think — really consider — what it feels like to be on the outside.  Hopefully this scenario hasn’t been a frequent one in your life.  It’s uncomfortable, painful…and lonely.

In our communications this fall Catholic Charities spent time focusing on one of the most meaningful gifts we give our clients on a daily basis — the gift of belonging.  You see, many of our clients have never truly been welcomed into a community, a place they are accepted just as they are and valued for being the unique person they are.  To the contrary, many have been in relationships and situations where they are judged, abused, ignored, or forced to be something or someone they aren’t.  They’ve been lonely — and often they’ve been alone.

Catholic Charities is blessed and honored to fill a special and unique role in the lives of our clients.  We are humbled to be that one place where our clients feel safe — and where they know they belong.  This precious gift can only be given as the result of the generous support of myriad donors, volunteers, staff, interns, and partners.  No matter how you might be connected to Catholic Charities — and if you aren’t connected to us yet, we invite you to become a part of our community — you have helped us to give the gift of belonging.  In 2013 alone, we have watched thousands of people gently “open” the gift of belonging.  We’ve seen its amazing impact as it empowers the powerless, creates hope for the hopeless, and gives our clients the confidence to build a world in which they can thrive.  It’s amazing what you can do when you know you belong — and you are loved just as you are.

Why do we place such importance on this gift?  Simply put, it is our mission and our calling.  We believe each person deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion.  Even more than that, we believe we are called to be the bearer of such amazing gifts.  For if we don’t do it, who will?  As St Teresa of Avila so beautifully stated:

“Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, we pause to reflect on the amazing gifts and blessings we have been given this year.  We are grateful for our supporters and our community.  We are grateful for our dedicated staff, giving their all each and every day.  We are grateful for volunteers who answer our call and share their gifts with our agency.

Perhaps most importantly, we are grateful for our clients.  They have trusted us, taught us so much, and partnered with us as we seek to help them build better lives.  They have called us to be our best selves each and every day — to be the hands and feet of Christ in a troubled world.  In so doing, they have given us the gift of belonging…for we belong right here, walking with each and every client in moments of holiness as we do the work of Christ step by step.

May you also experience the gift of belonging this Christmas…as well as peace, hope, and joy!

Blessing The Animals: A Faith Tradition

animalsCatholic Charities will be hosting our second annual Blessing of the Animals at Baraga Manor Apartments on October 4th from 4:00-5:00 PM. 

Bishop Bradley will lead the event, surrounded by cats, dogs, iguanas, hamsters, and other varieties of beloved pets.  Others will bring photos of their animals, asking the Bishop to bless them as well.  It’s a beautiful image with a wonderful tradition . . . and we’d like to share some of the history of the Blessing of the Animals with you.

The Blessing of the Animals is conducted in remembrance of St Francis of Assisi, who had a great love for all creatures.  St Francis’ feast day actually occurs on October 4th and stories of his interactions with animals (and love for them) flow throughout history.  Whether you realize it or not, you probably know something about St. Francis. He is the most popular Catholic saint in the world. He is the one who preached to the birds; blessed fish that had been caught, releasing them back into the water; communicated with wolves, brokering an agreement between one famous ferocious wolf and the citizens of a town that were terrified of it; and used real animals when he created the very first, live, Christmas nativity scene. At one point, he was actually displaced by a donkey who was in need of a home!  As a result of amazing events like these, Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment.

The first blessing of the animals happened like this: One warm afternoon early in his ministry (sometime between 1210-15), Francis wandered outside of Assisi, full of self-doubt, asking God if perhaps everything he had done until that point had been for the wrong reasons.  Francis wondered if he should have simply gotten married and raised a family as his father wanted him to do. It was while he was praying alone to God that Francis glimpsed some birds along the path. He paused and began to speak to them as if to equals.  Soon, he began to “preach” to them about God’s glories and all the reasons why both humans and birds should be grateful.  

In his famous book, “The Golden Legend,” Jacobus of Voragine write the following about St Francis:

The saint would not handle lanterns and candles because he did not want to dim their brightness with his hands. He walked reverently on stones out of respect for him who was called Peter, which means stone. He lifted worms from the road for fear they might be trampled underfoot by passersby. Bees might perish in the cold of winter, so he had honey and fine wines set out for them. He called all animals brothers and sisters. When he looked at the sun, the moon, and the stars, he was filled with inexpressible joy by his love of the Creator and invited them all to love their Creator.

At Franciscan churches during the Blessing of the Animals, a friar with brown robe and white cord often welcomes each animal with a special prayer. The Blessing of Pets usually goes like this:

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

A Blessing of the Pets will occur on or around October 4th in may Dioceses across the nation and around the world.  We hope you are able to join us as we join with our brothers and sisters at Baraga Manor Apartments on October 4th from 4:00-5:00 PM.  Together we will affirm what St Francis believed, that our pets and animals should be taken care of them as we take care of ourselves. We should show gratitude for them, for they are gifts from God.

sources:  http://www.americancatholic.org/features/francis/blessing.asp, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-m-sweeney/blessing-our-pets-st-francis-judaism_b_951906.html

The Power of Prayer

imagesCABYNFECCCDOK serves literally thousands of clients each and every year.  Each and every client enters our care wanting something to change.  For some, it’s the most basic of needs.  They just want a safe place to sleep, a chance to work for a living, a stable place to call home, or a steady source of nutritious food for their family. 

Some simply want to lay their burdens down for a few hours or to be able to freely share them with others, hoping to learn in the process.  Others want to change their behaviors.  They want to learn how to deal with stress or express their anger appropriately.  They want to stop doing something that harms them or someone they love.  Some clients want to learn how to have healthy and appropriate relationships. 

The reasons families, individuals, and couples come to CCDOK are diverse.  They all, however, have something in common.  Each is an urgent matter to the people who come to us.  Each has created stress, caused worry, and been a heavy burden for our clients to carry.  Regardless of the reason they are coming to CCDOK, every single client is hoping to leave our programs changed.   They are seeking our help as they journey through life, hoping to learn and change and grow so that things are better.

It’s a tall order . . . and it’s definitely something we couldn’t do without your help.  We often ask you for your financial support.  We ask you to donate items that our clients can use.  We ask you to share your time and talents with us.  The gifts you give to our agency on a daily basis are amazing — and they help us to help our clients make the change they so desire.  We are appreciative . . . and yet, we want to ask you for one more thing. 

The most important thing.

Could you please pray for our clients?

Whether it’s the infant of one of our Caring Network mothers . . . or the troubled teen who is trying to make life decisions . . . or the elderly person combatting loneliness . . . or the homeless youth living at a campsite with no hope left . . . or the couple battling depression and desperately trying to hold their marriage together . . . your prayer changes things!  Over and over again in the Bible we are simply instructed to ask God for His help — and promised that we will receive it:

”Ask, and it will be given to you seek, and you will  find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”  Matthew 7:7

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”  Matthew 21:22

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask  in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be  yours.”  Mark 11:24

Whatever you ask in my name, this I  will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in  my name, I will do it.”  John 14: 13-14

Standing on promises like these, we will ask again . . . could you please offer up prayers for our clients?  You may never meet the people who desperately need your prayers.  If you did meet, they may never ask you to pray for them.  Some might lack the confidence to ask, some might be without hope, and some may not be able to turn to a loving God for help on their own.  Regardless, your prayer can give them the peace, hope, and change they urgently need. 

We will be suggesting a monthly focus for your prayers on our website.  Simply click here — and come back each month to learn the new focus.  We appreciate all you have done to support CCDOK in the past . . . and we ask you to do just a bit more.  The power of prayer is amazing . . . and it will work!

The “Small Stuff” Matters

untitledThis past spring has been an incredibly busy one at CCDOK.  Staff in many of our programs have adjusted and accommodated significant changes in the work they do, the reports they complete, and the roles they have within the agency.  Our services have been in high demand and we have been challenged to do more with less.  We are juggling accountability, sustainability, and quality as we seek to meet demands placed on us from all sides.  Many of these demands just come with the territory and are to be expected in the non-profit sector.  Others have grown exponentially over the past few years with no end to that growth in sight.  The world around us — social, political, economic, professional, religious — seems to be getting more complicated and harder to juggle competently.

Please don’t consider me naive . . . I understand that CCDOK is not in a unique position.  When I look at the lives of my family, friends, clients, and peers I understand that people everywhere are stressed, busy, and tired.    Like most of you, I’ve read the depressing statistics:

  • Only 38% of U.S. employees are taking all of their earned vacation days. The average used only 14 out of 18 days (Expedia.com).
  • Fully 48% of American workers report being required to do more work with fewer resources, 39% report doing the work of two people because jobs have been cut, 47% report having difficulty taking time off from work, and at least 30% feel the need to stay connected 24/7 when they do manage to get some time off (TNS Research).
  • According to “The Statistic Brain,” the top two stressors in America today are “Job Pressure” (including co-worker tension, bosses, and work overload) and “Money” (including loss of job, reduced retirement, and medical expenses).

I’m not that old, but never in my life have I felt so uncertain about the future.  I look at my children and I wonder what the world will be like for them as adults.  The most obvious response to this uncertainty is fear.  Add in the stress and you’ve got a nice recipe for a nervous breakdown or a case of sheer panic.

So why am I calm and at peace as I type this?

I was recently given a wonderful tool to use on a daily basis.  When nothing in the world makes sense, this tool helps me to realize that the “small stuff” of my life really matters to God.  I can’t change some of the major issues of the world . . . I can’t change the Supreme Court’s decisions or create world peace, but the things I can do and can change are also things God cares about and uses to teach me on a daily basis.  This tool helps me to focus on that — and, in so doing, creates hope and peace in my day.

The tool I’m talking about was recently given to me by Fran Denny, CCDOK’s Executive Director.  It is called The Examen and it was created by St Ignatius of Layola.  It has been around for more than 400 years, but it is as applicable to life today as it was for St Ignatius himself.  According to Jim Manney, “The Examen is the prayer that changes everything.”  It helps you to see God (and His presence and involvement) in everyday events:

“There’s nothing complicated or mysterious about making the Examen part of your life. The subject matter of the Examen is your life — specifically the day you have just lived through. The Examen looks for signs of God’s presence in the events of the day — lunch with a friend, a walk in the park, a kind word from a colleague, a challenge met, a duty discharged. The Examen likes the humdrum. God is present in transcendent “spiritual” moments, but he’s also there when you cook dinner, write a memo, answer email and run errands,”  Manney states.

Like Mr Manney, I used to come into prayer carrying all the burdens of the day and simply be overwhelmed.  I would try to pray about “the big stuff” and would end up either babbling or falling asleep.  Neither result helped me feel anything but guilt — I was continually “falling short” in my mind.  Praying the Examen helped me to realize that God is walking with me through everyday life — even folding laundry or cleaning the toilets — and that I can see Him in anything and everyone.  He wants a relationship with me as I am here and now — not as the person I aspire to be someday in the distant future.  Mr Manney sums it up well in his blog on The Examen, saying:

“How are Christians different? A friend of mine . . . calls this “the Christian problem.” Our lives look pretty much the same as everyone else’s. We bob along on a river of emails, meetings, housework, errands, commuting and to-do lists. Believers of other faiths usually have outward signs of religious identity. Christians have few of these, because Jesus was more interested in the conditions of our hearts than in external signs of piety.

The answer to the Christian problem is to find God in all things — to see God in what we think, do and feel; in life with family, friends, colleagues and casual acquaintances; in our busyness and our rest. That’s what the Examen does. That’s why I call it the prayer that changes everything.”

If you are one of the people I talked about earlier in this blog — those who are overwhelmed, unable to take vacation days, and doing the work of two people — the Examen might not specifically make your work load lighter or give you eight hours to sleep every night.  It’s not going to magically change your situation, but it will change your mindset and your understanding of who God is and how He works in your life.  It will help you see His work in the “little things.”  It will help you to stop, think over your day, and ask Him for guidance as you walk through the rest of your tasks.  No matter how busy you are, no matter how many jobs you have to do, you are never doing any of them alone.  The “small stuff” matters to God.  What peace and freedom that can give!

If you’d like to learn more, please check out these links:

http://www.osv.com/tabid/7621/itemid/7718/The-Examen–the-prayer-that-changes-everything.aspx

http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/lunchtime-examen/

Ask . . . And You Shall Receive

untitled“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

This is an oft-quoted Bible verse from Luke 11:9.  It’s meant to encourage us to ask boldly knowing that God, who is good, will provide the things we need.  A few weeks ago CCDOK did just this in our April eNewsletter and in parish bulletins. 

We were so excited to learn that we had recently received funding to provide five more transitional housing units to older homeless youth.  These five units would house a total of eight youth and two babies at a time and would give them a safe and comfortable place to live as they learn skills and become self-sufficient through our services.  The challenge?  NONE of these units had ANY furnishings.  So, we put out the call, asking people across the nine counties we serve if they had anything in their attics or garages (or even in their living rooms, dining rooms, and bedrooms) that they could spare.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

We asked . . . and we were overwhelmed with response!  The faithful generosity of donors made this verse almost seem an understatement!  We thought our request was huge . . . that it might be too much to ask from our community.   We discovered it was not.  Yesterday — with the help of even more amazing volunteers who travelled across southwest Michigan to pick up and deliver donations — we were able to fully furnish three whole apartments.  More than 20 different donors had provided us with couches, chairs, dinette sets, beds, dressers, pots and pans — and more.  All of this came from a simple ask in faith.  What an incredible response!

As we pulled up to each donor’s home with a huge U-Haul truck, four volunteers hopped out to pick up the donated items.  We knocked on the doors and met the donors face-to-face and we were further blessed to see the joy they took in offering their gifts.  It was obvious that they were so pleased to be able to help create a home for youth who don’t have one.  One gentleman said, “I was going to put this on Craig’s list but I would rather give to someone in need.”  It was an opportunity for their faith to bear fruit — and we had a veritable cornucopia as a result!

If you were one of the generous individuals or families who gave us your chair, your table, or a set of pots and pans . . .  we want you to know that you were part of a miracle.  You were the fulfillment of scripture — and your gift will be a huge blessing to the young people who will benefit from it over the years.  Your chair, table, and pots and pans will come together to create the first safe home these young people have ever had.  We asked, you responded . . .  and the youth will be blessed.  Thank you for your generosity!

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” 

And it was . . . abundantly.

Be a Tree: Why We Do What We Do At CCDOK

imagesCACU75BCI will be completely honest.  There are days when working at CCDOK is overwhelming.  Days when every client’s challenges seem overwhelming, days when the mountains of paperwork seem ready to bury us, and days when the best intentions just aren’t enough.  Those are the days when I crawl back to my office, get on my knees, and ask God why I am doing what I am doing.

Last night the Board of Catholic Charities, the Board of Baraga Manor Apartments, and the Board of the Catholic Family Services’ Non-Profit Housing Corporation came together for their annual “Mission Meeting.”  We were blessed to be joined by our own Bishop Bradley and the room was filled with people who had committed — over many years — to supporting the work these organizations do.  Some of the items we discussed and voted on were seemingly mundane — capital budgets, auditing firms, and corporate structures.  In the midst of all the “everyday” work, however, we were given a chance to come together and focus on the heart of the agency, our Mission, and why we work so hard to do the work we do. 

I have an administrative job — I’m the person who sits behind the scenes and manipulates the numbers and deals with all the minutia of grants and contracts and government.  It is my job to spend a lot of time tending to the “trees” and I seldom get to step back and think about the “forest” we are cultivating through the work we do.  Sitting in that room, hearing the stories of hope and change and possibility, I was refreshed and renewed.  I was able to see, once again, how the work I do contributes to something so much larger.  I am, myself, a “tree” in the huge “forest” of staff and volunteers and clients and donors that comprise CCDOK and our larger community . . . but I am a “tree “who can make a difference.  Indeed, I am called to do so daily by God.  I would contend that you are a “tree” too — and that you are called to tend the beautiful “forest” that surrounds you daily.  You are called to make a difference.

This morning, walking into the office, I took a moment to look at each office door — thinking of the countless clients who had walked through each in crisis . . .  and the caring, compassionate services they had received there.  I thought of each staff person as I passed his or her office and considered their dedication and commitment to their clients.  Finally, I thought about the hundreds of volunteers and donors and supporters who had passed through the building over the years, joining these staff and these clients to bring about positive changes in the lives of individuals, families, and our greater community.   Suddenly the mountains of paperwork didn’t seem quite so large — at least not in comparison to the hearts and lives that have been changed.

I recently had the blessing to stumble across the encyclical Letter “Caritas In veritate” written by Pope Benedict.  In my years of work at Catholic Charities I have never seen a more beautiful or accurate summation of why we do the work we do.  I leave you with his words and encourage you to join us in this Mission, to allow your faith to come alive . . . to be courageous and generous and share the Truth in love.  Living “Charity in Truth” helps you grow closer to God . . . after all, it’s what you were made to do.

5. Charity is love received and given. It is “grace” (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son. It is creative love, through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we are recreated. Love is revealed and made present by Christ (cf. Jn 13:1) and “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:5). As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity.

Are You Called To Protect?

imagesI know it’s not Christmas.  I know it’s Spring outside and the flowers are blooming.  Yet I’m asking you to think back to the story of Joseph and Mary.  It’s an amazing and faith-filled story that you have likely heard many times in your life . . . at least once a year during Christmastime.  It’s a story you have likely grown up with, but it’s not one you can ever grow tired of.   It’s new every time you hear it — and it has amazing lessons and implications for our daily lives.  Take yourself back to the angels telling Mary she was to become a mother, the baby crying in the manger, the wise men, and the shepherds as they began their journey to praise a king they had yet to meet.

What role did Joseph play in this most amazing of stories?  According to Pope Francis, he had an important role as the “protector” of Mary, Jesus, and the Church.  While this role seems primarily take place in the background — hymns, story books, children’s Christmas pageants, and thousands of artists over the years chose to place the emphasis on Mary and Jesus — it is nonetheless extremely important.

To be honest, Joseph’s role in the Christmas story is very like the roles we ourselves play in our families, jobs, schools, and communities.  Pope Francis chose to highlight this role in his inaugural mass and beautifully explained this calling Joseph had and how it relates to the lives we each live every day:

“God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan.  It is God himself who builds the house, but from living stones sealed by his Spirit.  Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will, and for this reason, he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping . . . in him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ!  Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

The vocation of being a “protector”. . . involves everyone.  It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world.  It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.  It means protecting people, showing love and concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need . . . those who are often the last we think about.  It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children, in time, protect their parents.  It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.  In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it.  Be protectors of God’s gifts!”

What an admonishment!  I think of my own life and my calling to protect my four children, my husband, my parents, my dog, two cats, and six chickens.  I think of my calling to protect those who come through the door at Catholic Charities and to serve them — clients, volunteers, staff, donors, community members.  I think of all the other people God has placed in my life to love and protect — friends and family, people who I worship with, people who I know through my children’s school and extracurricular activities.  It can be overwhelming!  Yet, as Pope Francis says, my calling goes even beyond this — I am called to help those who “are often the last we think about.”  Those in need.  Facing homelessness, unwanted pregnancy, family crisis, depression, mental illness, and more.  I am called to show God’s love to each of these as if they were Christ himself.

Take a moment to go back to that wonderful story of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.  Joseph was called to protect the most amazing gift the world will ever know — and he didn’t have any way to understand that calling completely.  He went forward in faith, using his gifts and seeking God’s guidance.  With those tools he could not fail . . . and neither can we.  Now take a moment to consider all your blessings and ask God to help you protect and love the world around you — even those members of your community who you never think about.  Many of them are our clients here at Catholic Charities.

We’d love to have your help at CCDOK, reaching out to those who have no one else and wrapping them in love and protection just as Joseph did to Jesus that first night in the stable.